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Snow monkeys | © SITS Girls/Flickr
Snow monkeys | © SITS Girls/Flickr
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10 Reasons You Should Visit Japan In Winter

Picture of Alicia Joy
Tokyo Writer
Updated: 19 November 2016
Winter is usually a time when people stay home with family, but for those willing to brave the cooler weather it can also be one of the best times of year to travel. From hot spring-loving snow monkeys and amazing slopes to winter nabe and illuminations, these are the ten reasons you should visit Japan in winter.

Beat The Crowds

Japan is notoriously crowded, and even more so during the mild months. The spring sakura and autumn koyo attract millions of tourists each year, while the summer holidays for many other nations means kids and families have more free time to travel. By visiting in the winter, travelers can experience a totally different side of Japan and avoid the madding crowd.

Omotesando in winter
Omotesando in winter | © Kakidai/WikiCommons

Winter Sports

Much of Japan’s topography is made up of mountains. So it’s only natural that the skiing, snowboarding, skating, and other winter sports available are some of the best in the world. Hokkaido’s Niseko in the north is particularly renowned for ski resorts and the ideal powdery texture of the snow.

Skiing in Niseko, Hokkaido
Skiing in Niseko, Hokkaido | © MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr

Onsen / Hot Springs

Wintertime in Japan would be nothing without the legendary hot springs. Whether it’s a small local spring, a five-star resort, or an entire town built around the industry – like Kusatsuonsen are the best way to relax and re-energize for the wintry days ahead.

Hot spring/onsen in winter
Hot spring/onsen in winter | © Fumiaki Yoshimatsu/WikiCommons

Winter Specialties

Japan loves its seasonal specialties, and there are some things one can only find around the coldest time of the year. As the temperature drops, restaurants and combini bust out their take on oden, a hot, healthy and filling snack made from soy-braised vegetables, meat, and tofu products. And while technically available year-round, hot pots (nabe) and hot sake are best enjoyed on chilly evenings.

Nabe made with loach
Nabe made with loach | © Ivva/Flickr

Yuki Matsuri / Snow Festival

Sapporo transforms into a true winter wonderland for the Snow Festival, a celebration that attracts over two million visitors each year. Lasting one week in February, the event features illuminations, skating, and games, but the standout feature of the celebration is the snow sculptures. Teams representing their countries come from all over the world come together to compete, creating enormous works of art made of nothing but ice and snow.

The Hong Kong team’s snow sculpture at the Sapporo Snow Festival
The Hong Kong team’s snow sculpture at the Sapporo Snow Festival | © SteFou!/Flickr

Winter Illuminations

Illuminations and light shows bring out the beauty of an otherwise bare wintry landscape. Large cities like Tokyo and Osaka are famous for their seasonal illuminations, but most cities will have their own spectacular displays. Outdoor displays like the ones in Ueno or outside Roppongi Hills are one of the best ways to enjoy the season.

Osaka Castle illumination
Osaka Castle illumination | © kimubert/Flickr

Fukubukuro / Lucky Bags

Sometimes known as lucky or ‘happy bags,’ fukubukuro usually go on sale on January 2nd, with people lining up outside for hours for their chance to nab the most popualr ones. The appeal is that the value inside the bag far outweighs the price you pay. The catch is that you don’t get to choose what’s inside, so it’s a gamble. Most clothing stores offer fukubukuro that can even be pre-ordered online, but even the Apple store in Japan has its own lucky bags.

Plain and simple fukubukuro outside a small clothing store
Plain and simple fukubukuro outside a small clothing store | © Danny Choo/Flickr

Winter Wildlife

Many animals are in their element come wintertime. The Snow Monkey Park or Jigokudani Yaen-koen is full of the famous red-faced monkeys soaking in the park’s many onsen, while in Hokkaido the Tsurui-Ito Tancho Sanctuary is home to the red-crowned cranes gathering for their annual mating dances.

Snow monkeys
Snow monkeys | © SITS Girls/Flickr

Mountain Views

With the cool air keeping cloud cover to a minimum, wintertime is the best time to see the mountains surrounding the cities, including Mount Fuji itself. The quiet and sound-absorbing properties of snow also make it the perfect season for introspective hikes in the countryside or strolls through the city.

Mount Koyo in winter
Mount Koyo in winter | © Kazue Asano/Flickr

Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a small, traditional village in Takayama in Gifu Prefecture. The homes have tall, pointed roofs in the gasshō-zukuri style. In winter, the village is illuminated like a scene from a Christmas card, and is best viewed from the observation point above the village. Along with Gokayama, the historic settlement is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Shirakawa-go during the illumination
Shirakawa-go during the illumination | © tsuda/Flickr